Report: $723M in Solar Net Exports from the U.S.

The 11th-hour lobbying effort continues from a solar trade group that wants Congress to extend a program created by the stimulus package that pays for 30 percent of the cost of installing solar power projects. The latest salvo came in the form of a report that touted the United States as a net exporter of solar energy equipment worth $723 million in 2009.

The largest exported product was polysilicon. Polysilicon makers shipped $1.14 billion worth of the material out of the United States while the country imported $84 million’s worth last year, according to a GTM Research report commissioned by the Solar Energy Industries Association and released Tuesday. The figures referred to polysilicon made for use for the solar market only. 

The report looked at the manufacturing of solar panels, concentrating solar thermal equipment and solar water and pool heating systems. The largest sector belongs to producers of components and final products for solar panels. Its release seemed late considering that 2010 is almost over. SEIA and GTM representatives said the report required a lot of time for gathering and analyzing data because they hadn’t produced this kind of report before. 

Exports of silicon wafers for making solar cells accounted for $37 million in 2009, compared with $13 million in imports. 

Solar cell and panel assembly presented a trade deficit, which isn’t surprising considering that the largest U.S. solar panel makers, First Solar and SunPower, have long set up a big part of their manufacturing operations in places such as Malaysia and the Philippines to take advantage of generous tax packages or proximity to their customers, or both. On the other hand, a growing number of manufacturers based in Europe and Asia have set up factories in the United States. These manufacturers include Sharp, SolarWorld, Sanyo and Schott Solar.

Many manufacturers set up operations in the United States because they expect the country to be the next big market. But manufacturing costs can be higher in the U.S. than in their home countries. China-based Suntech Power, for example, opened a 30-megawatt solar panel assembly plant in Arizona earlier this year. The manufacturing cost in the Arizona factory is about $0.10-$0.15 per watt more than what Suntech could do in China, said Steve Chan, head of Suntech’s American operations, during a conference call with analysts earlier this month.

The U.S. exported $115 million worth of solar cells and imported $119 million of them last year. The country exported about $1.01 billion worth of solar panels and brought in $1.24 billion of them.

If the global solar market is divided by countries, then Germany, the largest solar market, received most of the U.S.-made solar energy equipment. In fact, Germany imported $686 million of the U.S.-made goods that go into making solar panels. Japan got $409 million while China took in $280 million, the report said. The rest, or $939 million, were scattered among other countries around the world.

The United States imported most of its solar panel-related equipment from China ($430 million) and Mexico ($349 million). The list is followed by Germany ($182 million) Philippines ($172 million), Japan ($164 million) and others ($295 million).

The report and a SEIA press conference are part of an intensifying effort to persuade federal lawmakers to extend a program that can cover 30 percent of the cost of installing a solar energy generation project. The program came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and it’s set to sunset by the end of this month. Project developers can still qualify for the grant as long as they either start construction or spend 5 percent of their projects’ budget (on equipment such as racking systems, for example) before the year ends.

Last week, SEIA held a press conference after a Senate bill to extend the provision didn’t make it to a compromised tax bill. SEIA’s CEO, Rhone Resch, warned then that job losses would be likely if lawmakers didn’t continue the program.

Since then, the Senate managed to squeeze in a one-year extension of the program in the tax bill. The Senate hasn’t voted on the bill, which will still need the approval of the House. SEIA was hoping to get a 2-year extension.

GTM’s report also showed how much value the solar industry has created domestically. The number takes into account the dollars generated from manufacturing, designing and installing solar energy projects (including factors such as labor and site preparation), legal expenses and sales of equipment by distributors and retailers. In all, solar projects created $3.6 billion in value last year, and $2.6 billion of that stayed in the United States.

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Ucilia Wang is a California-based freelance journalist who writes about renewable energy. She previously was the associate editor at Greentech Media and a staff writer covering the semiconductor industry at Red Herring. In addition to Renewable Energy World, she writes for Earth2tech/GigaOm, Forbes,Technology Review (MIT) and PV Magazine. You can reach her at Follow her on Twitter: @UciliaWang

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